For Nissan's product revival, Carlos Ghosn sought edgier thinking. Jane Nakagawa provided it.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1988
Role: Advanced product planner
Key influence: Led Nissan's effort to read customers' needs with sociologists, anthropologists and other unconventional thinkers
Nakagawa specialized in the mysterious process of defining customers' needs before even they know what they want. What Ghosn wanted was research grounded in edgier, more creative thinking. That was Nakagawa's hallmark, and Ghosn made her head of advanced planning.
At the time, Nakagawa says, Nissan was churning out dry customer research, complete with charts and percentages.
“The designers were complaining that the consumer research that the company was doing didn't mean anything to them,” Nakagawa says. “They weren't inspired by it. I was one of the freaks that actually had been in product planning, could speak Japanese, had a degree in architecture and got along really well with Jerry Hirshberg,” president of Nissan Design International.
Nakagawa assembled an unconventional crew of psychologists, sociologists, mathematicians and designers — not your father's automotive product planners.
“Her communication ability was really terrific,” says Jack Collins, who at that time was vice president of product planning for Nissan North America. “It might seem like it ought to be easy to communicate these kinds of concepts, but in fact it's rather challenging.”
When her friend Collins retired in 2006, Nakagawa also left the company.
“The group started to do new kinds of research, things not seen in our industry,” says Larry Dominique, Collins' successor. “Things like unmet needs and ideal vehicles.”
Ghosn's product revival has had hits and misses. The redesigned Quest minivan, for instance, tanked. But innovation always entails risk.
You can reach Jeff Mortimer at (Unknown address).